“I was sceptical at first, thinking this was a way to entrap us.”
This was Daniel Nyandeh Sieh’s first reaction to Kumacaya, an initiative to bridge the gap between companies and civil society.
“We had been advocating against the company, so naturally there were concerns,” he said. “But after meeting the Kumacaya team, we gained courage that they wanted to bring change.”
In 2018, Daniel first spoke with James Mulbah from the Kumacaya team. It was these discussions that slowly changed Daniel’s mind. James and Daniel subsequently began looking for a way to understand long-standing tensions between local communities and a major palm oil company in Grand Kru County, Liberia.
Born in Barclayville, Grand Kru County, Liberia, Daniel has been a youth leader since his early days. He is now director of Friends of Franbarnie International (FOFI), where he has been helping local communities since 2006.
“I’ve always been interested in helping out youngsters,” he said. “In my youth, I was involved in many projects, including building a computer training centre in Barclayville.”
Tensions in Grand Kru County are rooted in the two civil wars that ravaged Liberia throughout much of the 90s and early noughties, said James Mulbah, who leads Kumacaya in Liberia.
“The economy, social structures, transportation, politics, laws – all these institutions were dismantled in the war,” James said. “Thousands died or were displaced before the war ended.”
James was about 6 years old when the war broke out. He remembers walking with his family from Monrovia, the capital, to their rural hometown in Lofa County. The journey took them one month.
“We depended on the land for everything; we wouldn’t have survived without it,” he said. “There were also no formal schools, so we learnt life skills – like farming and building houses – from our elders instead.”
When the war ended, poverty was the order of the day, James said. To alleviate this, the government opened up to foreign investors, especially in the palm oil sector. Several companies were granted thousands of hectares of land and began developing oil palm.
In 2013, reports surfaced of how a plantation in Grand Kru Country was developed on community lands without the consent of locals. The company claimed that they conducted FPIC (Free Prior Informed Consent) with locals.
“But company staff weren’t skilled in dealing with the community or the FPIC process,” Daniel said. “On the other hand, the community didn’t understand the process either.”
One such misunderstanding was that the company had promised to build roads, water pumps and schools. They had also promised to employ locals in the plantation.
“They thought that the company would build these things immediately,” Daniel said. “And when they didn’t see it being built, they thought the company had gone back on its word.”
Daniel spent six months speaking to company and community representatives, trying to understand both perspectives. He also drew up a plan to help the company re-build burnt bridges.
Before, CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) would rely only on the community to raise issues. But we now cross-check these issues and involve the company as well, Daniel said.
“That was a game changer,” he said. “Getting the company, communities and CSOs around the table – this is what can really bring real change to Liberia.”